Thursday, March 19, 2015

Book Review: UNKEPT

Title: Unkept
Author: Ericka Clay
Publisher: Bannerwing Books
Pages: 257

I wondered why Ericka had not called the book, Broken, since that was what most of the characters were, bruised and broken. But I supposed, Unkept worked just as well. I wondered what it stood for though. Did it mean a mess, something that wasn’t kept well?

The cover revealed nothing. In an age of designer book covers, it was stark and plain. Just the title and the author’s name, giving us no indication of what to expect, and taking away our right to judge its merit by its cover.

The book alternates between the first person present tense account of Vienna Oaks and the third person past tense account of Heather Hammel, her childhood nemesis. The alternating POVs don’t always take the story forward. Instead they retrace the same experiences from differing viewpoints.

The trouble with choosing different styles for both was that it got me unconsciously supporting Vienna over Heather. I don’t know if Ericka meant that to happen, or if she merely wished to set the two viewpoints apart.

The setting is established in the first few pages. We come to know that it is a funeral home, from the sweet smell of formaldehyde and the body of a five-year-old that initiates an upheaval in the mind of Vienna. It is amazing how the needs and complexities of life constantly buzz and swarm even in the backdrop of a funeral home, a reminder of how the circle of life and death is so entwined within itself.

We begin the novel by seeing Heather and Vienna as their pregnancy hormones wreak havoc in their lives. Both are now grown up, but the shadow of grade school still hangs heavily over both of them. Both women are psychologically bruised, and have a physically or mentally absent father, a mother with severe issues, and of course, Wyland. Married to Heather, Wyland no longer loves her. He is incapable of staying committed to either woman.

It is hard to describe the plot but I will try my best. Through the writing, you sense the dysfunction of this family across generations. Vienna’s dead mother with a severe alcohol addiction, her grandmother who blames Vienna, her dad’s affair with Loretta (Dad’s yellowing stationery to Loretta’s neon Post-it note), and her grandfather in prison. And a secret that Vienna has kept repressed for years.

Between the troubled family members, the children feel hemmed in on all sides. Vienna battles life, nervous and anxious, while Troy, her brother, drops out of civilized life. As Vienna observes, Dirt and time have made their beds in his pores.

At age 15, Troy sleeps with 13-year-old Rosa, Vienna’s best friend, and leaves her pregnant. Rosa becomes an unwed teenage mother. It is another example of the wrong personal choices that the characters make, one that reprises itself when Maya, Rosa’s daughter with Troy, also becomes pregnant in her teens.

Heather carries her own issues. Her childhood saw her father leave her and her filth- and vermin-loving mother to set up house with another woman. Distressed, Heather seeks to rebuild her self-esteem by torturing other kids in the sixth grade.

As grownups, Vienna has an affair, which results in pregnancy, with her one-time best friend, Wyland, now Heather’s husband, a man who cannot stay committed to any woman. Heather too is pregnant with Wyland’s child. When Heather’s mother dies, she chooses Oaks Funeral Home to complete the formalities.

Slowly Heather and Vienna gravitate towards each other, bound by their pregnancies, and their burdensome past and complicated present. Their attitude towards their mothers informs their lives, as Ericka observes through Vienna’s voice: There’s nothing extinguishable about the burning roots that connect a mother to her child.

It takes a while to figure out who is who, because Ericka establishes the relationships and the circumstances in the best way possible: from the inside out. The relationships are all complicated and twisted, leaning into one another.

The friendship between Vienna and Rosa is beautifully described. Even though we don’t get her point of view, and therefore know nothing about the pain she feels when Vienna wounds her feelings, she still comes across as rock solid, forgiving and loving, standing up against Heather’s bullying, and fiercely protective of Vienna.

The healing power of confession which Vienna experiences with Rosa as a child is something she has need of, even as a grownup. What mattered was wringing my soul dry like a dirty washcloth and feeling the quiet smoothing over every raw nerve. That is how Vienna explains the act of playing confession time with Rosa. It is a line that struck me at the end of the story, making the otherwise hard-to-accept conclusion easier to accept. A closing that provided closure to Vienna.

While Rosa offers healing, Vienna’s Gram is bacon in a pan snapping hot oil against my ear, and just like that you feel the sizzling in your own mind.

The writing is sensual. We taste the words as we read, and stop and think about the implications of each line. Vienna thinks about herself stooping to her Gram’s level and how it is not that great a drop. In another instance, she says, the chips and nicks are time scraped perfunctorily into the wood.

The flashbacks are truly seamless, and we traverse the distance between past and present as effortlessly as the characters themselves. Bit by bit, Ericka peels off layer after layer. Heather’s cruelty is there, magnified when set against the fact that she stole Wyland away from Vienna. Heather is not mean the way Hollywood portrays it, but her cruelty pecks away at a girl with severe anxiety issues.

The characters are all complicated, as is the writing. Don’t pick up this book, if easy reading is what you are looking for. Readers must be prepared to make an investment on their own part in order to get the best out of this book. But that is what all good books demand of readers, and good readers are more than willing to oblige.

Ericka handles her material well. She knows how to turn the cushion inside out so the hurt and the embarrassment can stay hidden.

I found her choice of words most interesting. Often the usage is far removed from tradition. For example, the soap…flirted with the air. Elsewhere, miscarriage is described as the pain in my womb healing without my consent.

Ericka’s style can bring out the laughs just as you are reading something deathly serious. But as Vienna says, There is nothing funny about the truth. 

The author is matter-of-fact about everyone, whether they are in pain, or whether they are doing something wrong. There is no judgement.

The women are all strong, even when they are faced with the fickleness of the men. Vienna and Heather who love a man who does not love them as much. Loretta who cares for Vienna’s father and his children even though she cannot expect a ring in return. Vienna’s mother, Louise, and Heather’s mother, Caroline, in the face of their addiction and issues. Rosa, who finds herself pregnant at 13 and Vienna’s Gram, whose husband is arrested and imprisoned. It is the men who are unable to keep their promises.

Unkept brings out the fact that grief and the need for forgiveness and redemption are universal. The novel brings up a number of issues. How adults can mess up children’s lives at home, as well as the insidious effects of bullying. About the pain of ruptured relationships and the delicious release that comes of forgiving and mending the rupture.

I understood the meaning of Unkept in the last paragraph, when Vienna thinks being this free is almost harder to bear than being kept.

Reading Unkept left me feeling a little exhausted as if I had lived all those conflicting and troubled lives. I hope you’re convinced to read it too.

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